Back in the days of the Bicentenpany was searching for a corporate project, president Jack Yogman was inclined to a national tree-planting program.

"I was really concerned," Yogman says now, "with preserving a rapidly disappearing part of our country."

Three years and about $300,000 later, Yogman's concern has come true - with a slight twist. After much debate, Seagram embarked on a risky and novel venture: commissioning some of the country's best photographers to document the nation's disappearing courthouses.

The effort has yielded a traveling photo exhibit and a sumptuous book on the topic, "Court House," published by Horizon Press. But more important, perhaps, what is known in photo circles as the Seagram Court House Project has produced a heightened awareness of photography in the business world. Already AT&T has earmarked about $500,000 for a major photo project and several other large corporations - including Time Inc. - are considering similar programs.

"Obviously," says Edgar Bronfman, chairman of the board of Joseph E. Seagram & Sons Inc., "we hoped this project might get other corporations interested in supporting artists. Years ago my father commissioned painters to do paintings of Canadian citizens (much of the company's business is in Canada), and it was my sister Phyllis (Bronfman Lambert), who's an architect, who really got me interested in this. Some of our people thought we should involve our liquor bottles, for instance, in the photos, but I felt it would be pretty tacky to get product involved in a project like this."

When AT&T first thought up its project about a year ago, program coordinator Max Schwartz envisioned "trying to depict how the country has changed in the last 100 years through communications, particularly the telephone.

"But you wind up getting very self-serving," says Schwartz, "so we went to the National Endowment for the Arts and talked to Renato Danese of the Visual Arts Program. He convinced us to really give the photographers a free hand, and we asked him to basically run the project. I just told him that we were kind of straight-laced a lot of naked stuff."

For Danese, the AT&T and Seagram projects are "some important goals of the endowment. We want to encourage the private sector in this field. A lot of corporate support has gone into the performing arts: support of the visual arts has been rare."

In the Seagram project, 24 photographers were given specific shooting assignments by editor Richard Pare. "The attitude of the final body of work was really decided before the work began," says photographer Lewis Baltz, a project participant, "but it wasn't really that limiting. This is the kind of work magazine photographers have been screaming for 30 years."

The AT&T project is less defined. Each of the 20 participants is allowed to choose his own subject. Steven Shore, for instance, a New York color photographer, shot the Yankees at spring training in Florida.

"This could be a breakthrough for photographers," Shore says. "In my work - large formal color - the expenses are immense and this enables me to do work. The money isn't quite up to commercial per-diem scale, but one doesn't generally get a commercial assignment that lasts for six weeks."

Like the Seagram project, the AT&T program is sceduled to result in a traveling museum show and a book. The Sezgram archives have been deposited in the Library of Congress; AT&T will donate two sets of 15 different prints by each of the 20 pohtographers to public institutions. The company will keep one set and the photographers will keep their own negatives.

"What amazes me," says AT&T's Schwartz "is that these things are not expensive, well under a million bucks. It doesn't take a hell of a big piece of change to support some of the tremendous talent we've found out there. Our biggest hope is that we'll encourage other companies to come in and get their feet wet.

"The idea that a photographer could support himself on his work alone was unthinkable 10 years ago," says Baltz. "If other companies get into projects like this with an enlightened manner - which to me means basically hands off - it will have a tremendous impact on the field. The ball is in the corporate court now."